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My Battle With Addiction as an Adult With Cerebral Palsy

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I never thought I would have to write this story. I was a good kid who did not get into trouble. I did not even drink until I got out of high school. I never heard of anyone with a disability who struggled with addiction. Therefore, it was a shock that I, Chelsie Hermsen, would be an addict.

As I look around my room in the group home that has been my home for the past two and a half years, I think, how in the world did I get here? If you had told me three years ago I would be living in a group home, I would have probably said a couple of choice words to you. Even two years and seven months ago, I would not have believed you. The following essay is an account of my fall into addiction, my struggle in it, and how moving to a group home was the best thing that could have happened to me.

In order to understand my story, you must understand that I have a disability. I was born unconscious when my mom’s placenta tore, and I was without oxygen for the first few minutes of my life. This resulted in severe athetoid quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for any brain damage occurring before, during and up to two years after birth. Cerebral palsy affects the way my brain communicates with my muscles. This involves my walking and talking, but, fortunately, it does not affect my intellect or learning abilities. CP affects the way I go about my daily life. I use a wheelchair full-time and need assistance with activities of daily living.

Growing up, I, like many people with disabilities, did not let my disability stop me. I participated fully in school and activities outside of school. Yes, some things were a little more challenging, but I always seem to overcome them. I always seem to be able to keep up with my non-disabled classmates.

When I got to college, I excelled beyond my wildest dreams. I had always been a good student, but I became a great student when I got to college. I was on the Dean’s List all semesters I was in college, except for my first semester. During my senior year, things seemed to fall my way. I got a great internship in the Disability Services Office on campus. I was elected President of the Access Club, a club on campus that deals with disability issues. I won a philosophy essay constant with a paper on the History of Disabilities in the World.

Additionally, I got accepted to the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Disability Studies program. My life was great! There was no doubt in my mind that big things were on the horizon — definitely a job at the very least.

My expectations were very high when I moved to Chicago. I thought I was going to become a great disability scholar. However, that is not how things turned out. It was a perfect storm of factors that led me to be unsuccessful. First, somebody in a car hit me while I was in my wheelchair my second month there. Second, I did not have the PCA services when I was there that I needed. Third, my mental health declined, and the stresses of grad school did not help. Those three things combined to make my experience in grad school very challenging. Therefore, after three years, I moved back home with my parents. This decision was tough for me as I considered it my first real failure in my life.

However, even as I moved home, I was confident I would still get a job. In my mind, there was no doubt I could get a job. Whatever I could not do because of my disability, I would make up with my grade and intellect. After all, that is what always happened in school. Why would the work world be any different? After I applied to 200+ jobs, I was so discouraged that I only got to interviews, and those interviews were pretty much over once they saw I had a disability.

I was feeling pretty low at this moment. In my mind, I had failed at graduate school, and I had failed at getting a job. To make matters worse, I lived at home with my parents, something a 20-something does not want to do. I felt so low, I tried to take my own life. Thankfully, my parents were there and got me the help I needed.

After the hospital trip, my parents and I decided I would get my own apartment since that was a contributing factor to my depression. I got an accessible apartment in the town I went to college in. There were some ups and downs; however, I lived successfully on my own until 2016.

In 2016, I started drinking. Many factors led me to drink, but I genuinely believe the root cause of it was my graduate school failure and subsequent inability to get a job. Once I started drinking, it was just easier to be drunk all the time than to face life as a person who could not work. I find many people with disabilities struggle with not having a job because having a job is often central to an adult’s identity.

At first, it was only a few drinks at night to wind down the day. I thought I deserved it. Additionally, alcohol helped my spasticity. It was like my muscles said, “ahhhhh, we can finally relax.” I thought I had found the miracle drug to all my problems. Little did I know my problems were just beginning.

I continued drinking into the fall. One night, I drank too much, too fast, and I lost control of my arms, or at least I thought I did. Recently, I had gotten a life-alert, so I pushed my life-alert. Ten minutes later, an ambulance showed up at my apartment and took me to the hospital. It was the first time I went to the hospital for drinking. It would not be the last; however, it would be the last time I voluntarily went with the EMS people.

Around this time, my social worker began to notice my behavior. I always liked and respected my social workers. I was the “good client,” the one that never caused trouble. Something that would change in the coming months. She told me I was heading down a dangerous path, one that may not end in a good place. She suggested that I go to treatment. I kind of laughed her off. I was fine. I had never partied in college, and in my mind, I was just making up for the lost time.

In the fall, I continued to drink. I was no longer only drinking at night, but I had not progressed to drinking around the clock. One day in October, I had been drinking all day and ran out of vodka. I had to get more vodka. However, my shoes were off, and I couldn’t get them back on. So I got in my wheelchair and went to the liquor store with just my stocking feet. This doesn’t make me an addict. I had seen several of my friends in wheelchairs go to the store with only their socks; it was a disabled thing. Or that’s what I told myself.

There were many more ER visits in the coming months. I am considered a vulnerable adult, and according to vulnerable adult laws, a vulnerable adult cannot be in unsafe situations, including being drunk. Therefore, every time a mandated reporter visited me, including PCAs, they had to report me to the police, it was their legal duty. The police would come and take me to the ER.

The standard procedure for someone who comes to the ER very intoxicated is for the ER to send them to detox and then treatment. However, no detox or treatment facilities would take me because I required PCA care. At first, this seemed like discrimination. I mean, they were not letting me in because of my disability. How could that not be discrimination? However, I learned that it was not technically considered discrimination because it was accessible; they had an accessible room. I just couldn’t use it because I required PCA care.

Eventually, I got into treatment; however, I was not ready, and as soon as I got out, I went back to drinking. I have so many unbelievable stories of drinking while using a wheelchair. Most include being so drunk that I forgot to plug my wheelchair in, and then I would try to make beer runs in my chair. It is incredible what an addict’s brain can rationalize.

I continued drinking until February 2018, when my social worker told me there was an opening in a group home. At first, I was adamant. There was no way me, miss independent, was going to a group home. However, my family convinced me it was the right choice, and I moved there in March 2018.

At first, I was not too fond of it, and I made my feelings known. I was not too friendly to the staff. My family promised me I could move out after a year. To their credit, they let me. However, I drank the night I moved and ended up in the ER. Fortunately, the group home took me back.

It was not until after two years of living in a group home that my attitude began to change. There were several reasons for this, but they all boil down to one thing, a quote an alcohol counselor gave me. “Acceptance is the key to happiness.” I know, I know. When I heard it, I laughed in her face and rolled my eyes. However, after four years of dealing with addiction and treatments for addiction, I can honestly say it’s true.

I no longer measure my self-worth by whether I can get a job or not. Do I want a job? Absolutely! But I look at it like this; I have an opportunity that most do not get. I can devote my time to whatever interests me. My interests are always changing. Right now, it’s writing; tomorrow or next month, it will be something different.

In closing, my story shows that addiction can happen to anyone, even those of us with disabilities. I hear from a lot of disabled people who are depressed because they cannot work. Not working sucks, I won’t lie. However, if you accept your situation and begin to see not working as a unique opportunity rather than a negative, then maybe you too can find happiness.

Read Chelsie’s full story on her blog.

Getty image by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz.

Originally published: December 17, 2020
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